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Machine Embroidered Applique – Choosing Fabric Colors

Take a look at the new images at the header of this page – they’re all from my new book, Machine Embroidered Quilting and Applique. I had a blast creating this book! I think my favorite part was picking the fabrics. And boy, did I learn a few things along the way that I’d like to share with you.

The success of a machine embroidered applique project is dependent on the visibility of the applique. The techniques shown in the book give the appearance of tediously-applied appliqué or intricate piecing when in fact, they are raw-edge machine embroidered appliqués. If you remember the appliqué fabrics are the star of each quilted block or panel, you’ll have little trouble selecting fabrics.

Contrast in color or value is what will make the appliqués pop. Use the color wheel to help select fabrics.



Complementary colors (opposite on the color wheel) are a tried and true combo. Love the base fabric? Place it on a color wheel and move your eye across the wheel. There’s your applique fabric. This method works beautifully and guarantees eye-catching results.


Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. They blend beautifully together and help move from one color family to the next.


You can even make a monochromatic color scheme work in this technique. Monochromatic fabrics are fabrics derived from the same color family. The cream, tan and brown colors of My Favorite Bag display a successful monochromatic color scheme.

Next week, we’ll explore how value (the amount of white or black added to a color) comes into play in a machine embroidered quilt. I’ve always had a fairly good eye for color but I really had to focus on value to get the results I wanted. It’s not hard to do, it’s just another element to take into consideration when selecting fabrics.

Do you opt for complementary, analogous or monochromatic combinations? Tell me about your preferences, what color scheme is your favorite and we’ll pick a winner from all the comments. The winner will receive a copy of Machine Embroidered Quilting and Applique signed by Nancy Zieman and me! Why Nancy? The book is a part of the Create with Nancy series by Krause Publications and includes a how-to DVD!

Last week we asked about your experience with embroidery for children.  The winner of the Children’s Perfect Placement Kit and Machine Embroidery for Babies and Tots is…Tonia Jeffery!

“I haven’t done anything yet for my two daughters, but I’m thinking about adding lullaby lyrics to the bottoms of their night gowns.”

Congratulations, Tonia!




  • Anne Marie Reilly

    Most of the time I use complementary colors because I like the visual punch I get with them. I have had problems in quilting mottled darker fabrics as a background with choice of thread color that will stand out.

  • Gail Beam

    Generally, I use lighter colored fabrics, but sometimes a dark colored fabric showcases embroidery or stippling designs more dramatically. The effect desired determines the colors that I choose to use.

  • Nancy

    My favorite color scheme is always pastel colors. I particularly like pastel peach with yellow and green.

  • Shirley R

    My use of color really depends upon the subject matter of the project. I am working on a quilt with black, brown and cream. I love anything purple! Really, all colors appeal to me except orange, but even it is beautiful used in the right color combination.

  • Kathy Schmidt

    I love them all, but my favorite would be complimentary, I love the harmony of it. Love the site, the blog, & shopping.
    Thank you Eileen!!!!!

  • Sue Anderson

    I love to use complimentary colors in both the fabric and thread. The designs in this packet would lend themselves to any of the three. I can already see some of my stash being used in the designs. Eileen, thank you for the designs, inspiration and article.

  • Alice M

    I’m not always real great at picking out colors, but I guess when I do it would have to be complimentary.

  • Betsy

    I often struggle with color choices when a project requires more than a few colors/fabrics. Although I love the bright complementary colors, monochromatic designs really catch my eye, especially those with tans or blues.

  • Dee Bratcher

    I use a variety of colors/prints when I applique. If the base fabric is bold/busy, then I will most likely go with something softer tone. However, if I want to applique to be the focus then I will go with something that will jump out. It is so much fun to pick the applique fabric and lay it on the base fabric to get different ideas. I also use a lot of different type of fabrics – not just cottons. You can add lots of bling just with specialty fabrics as your applique.

  • Vonee

    I love the complementary color theme most of all. It just seems to make the whole project pop and really showcases your work. I am so glad you did this article around the color wheel, I think we would all benefit from learning to use it in our projects, I know I will! Thanks, and I love your projects, really inspired me to get working on some of them!

  • Nancy

    I use a lot of burgundy turquoise and teal. I live in the southwest

  • Sue

    I find myself drawn to primary colors for quilt making. I like the bright look.

  • Brigitte Cowan

    Analogous is generally my choice for quilts. I like similar colors together. I love lots of color but I don’t like it to knock you over. Subtlety is my way to go. I have done monochromatic and complementary but I always seem to go back to subtle colors.

  • Cathy Green

    The Analogous is really becoming, it reminds me of my grandma and watching her do handwork on one of her beautiful quilts. Thanks for the trip back to memory lane.

  • Kate Rayburn

    I like the boldness of complementary color selection so I tend to use that the most often. If I’m trying to go for something more subtle I tend to go with a more monochromatic scheme.

  • Brenda McCullers

    I love complementary but bright, warm and loud colors. Practicing applique to get good enough to do a quilt using appliqued bird houses and butterflys. Need to practice lots.

  • Heidi Cook

    Two color schemes I am experimenting with, right now, are dark chocolate/turquoise and black/red.

    I love matching solid colors to fanciful prints to make non-dominate color in the print stand out. I love holding up a solid color to a print and hearing someone say, “Whoa! I didn’t realize there was green in that print!”

    Color feeds my soul.

  • Doree Shandera

    I tend to lean towards the complementary. I like to have things pop out. If I go with similar batiks I will try and throw in metallic threads to get a pop visual. I must admit I have started using that color wheel more and more. Thanks for the infomative article.

  • Kathi Miller

    I lean towards complementary colors. Batiks are a special favorite because it’s so easy to make things pop.

  • Darlene Jacolik

    I often use complementary colors and keep my color wheel handy to help out with my choices. I love machine embroidery applique and use it frequently in my projects.

  • Lois Lyon

    I like the analogous theme. I like the soothing understated look. I made a set of pajamas for my six-year-old the other day and used fabric from the top to applique flip-flops (her favorite thing) at the hemline of the shorts.

  • Kari Kechter

    I tend to lean towards the monochromatic, tone-on-tone look for soft, elegant pieces. Though when I want some punch I definitely go for complimentary colors (especially with kids clothing).

  • LeAnne

    It depends on what I’m working on. If it’s clothing, I lean toward monochromatic. If it’s a wallhanging, I use complementary or analogous. I tend to use analogous if I am using subdued colors and complementary if I’m using bright colors.

  • Sally Red

    I love the elegant look monochromatic colors give my table linens, bed linens and bags. Wearable art items bring out my wild and colorful self…so guess it depends on what I am stitching. I really like it when a digitizer posts sample combinations of their designs and how those combos look in both monochramatic and multi-colored stitchouts to help embroiderers be more creative.

  • Deane

    I love Analogous. I am having a really great time right now putting together all of the the bright spring colors. yellow, oranges, and reds are my favorites.

  • Jackie

    I tend to do analogous only because using colours is something I struggle with all the time. If I’m using solid colours it’s not quite as difficult but once fabric with anytype of pattern or colour in it yuks.

  • Paule-Marie

    It depends on what I am making and what kind of mood I am in. I tend to be all over the place when it comes to color. Yesterday, for instance, I was picking purples and oranges with a hint of teal, burgundy, yellow and gold. I can say, however, I like my quilts bright.

  • Denice

    I am mostly inclined to choose complimentary colours when choosing my colour schemes. I am attractacted to the brightness, I find the colour blending lively and invigorating. In addition I believe this colouring looks better from a distance when creating things for show, as in a bed quilt or wall hanging.

  • Patricia Phaiah

    I love the complimentary colors especially for when I am working on something for my grandchildren. The love the bold colors.

  • Vonee

    When will the winner be posted?

    • Eileen Roche


      • Vonee

        Yeah! Have to see if I need to order it! It looks like a must have! Thanks!

  • sharon kruml

    I like complimentary colors. I really like things to pop. I like things that are bold and that make a real statement. It kind of goes with my personality. Right out in front.

  • Jane Towsley

    This is a great article on using the color wheel. I learned a lot. Generally I just pick out by eye what colors I like together with what I’m working on. Mostly complimentary colors is what I end up with. Right now my favorite mix is Browns and Pinks. When doing clothing for myself I stick with monochromatic colors. I did just get some T-shirts to do some of your Designer Neckline Makeovers. I think I’ll get brave and go with complimentary brights!

    • Digul

      I too am having a preolbm downloading the pattern 🙁 I’d love to make this sweet owl for a little girls birthday tomorrow, but Im not an experienced enough sew-er to free hand it. I would appreciate it if you could send it to me too, Scribd won’t load for me either, and sadly neither will your tutorial video 🙁 Thanks so much! shesgawncountry@

      • Denise

        Hi Digul,
        Hmm… I’d like to help but I’m stumped! I can’t think of any owl patterns we have offered as download. But sometimes my memory is a bit sketchy. Let me know a few more details and I’ll try to help.


  • Carol Seavitt

    Bold bright neon colors are my fav. And turns out they are my teenage kids fav too. Made a cute cute cute quilt and placed cartoon embroidery on the yellow sections for my daughter… now the almost 21 year old wants one — excluding Bambi (go figure).

  • Margaret Prieto

    How do you ladies ever find the time to do you projects. Between reading emails, deciding on what fabrics to use, which embroidery designs to use on what and keeping up with blogs and facebook, not to mention house work, I never seem to have enough time to finish half of the projects I have on the go. I am on the computer way too long each day. I admire you ladies.

    • Denise

      Chocolate makes my world go ’round!

      But on a serious note, I think like anything– it’s just about breaking a day down into a series of tasks then happily checking off a task as it gets complete. Oftentimes when things are getting overwhelming I also notice my desk requires cleaning– so I reorganize, regroup and tackle more tasks!

      – Denise / Designs in Machine Embroidery

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